Thursday, December 18, 2008

Predictive Health, Insurance & Security: A Spiritual Perspective

Over the last few days, I have heard two discussions – one on the radio and the other at the Indiana University Center for Bioethics – that have given me a new and deeper understanding of the meaning of health insurance and of the challenges of incorporating Predictive Health information into healthcare. These two presentations came together to give me a new understanding of the spiritual dimension of health insurance.

The first discussion occurred on the NPR program "Speaking of Faith," hosted by Krista Tippett. This week the program featured an interview with Parker Palmer, a Quaker writer and educator, and focused on themes related to the current economic meltdown. When discussion turned to the role of greed in causing the crisis, Palmer commented that greed stems at least partly from a sense of isolation and a lack of feeling of being part of a community. If a person feels that he cannot rely on others for help at times of need, he will understandably develop the impulse to acquire as much as possible, to attempt to amass a sort of fortress against possible danger to him and his family.

This immediately reminded me of the state of healthcare and health insurance in this country. As premiums rise and increasing numbers of businesses cut back on health insurance for employees and retirees, more and more Americans are living without health insurance or facing the very real possibility of this. And what could cause a greater feeling of isolation – of living without support from others – than finding yourself without available or affordable health insurance? Even those of us who do have health insurance must feel insecure as we observe the growing ranks of uninsured and underinsured people. The historic economic downturn has made the trend only worse, of course.

Palmer’s comment highlights one of the many destructive effects of fearfulness. And it highlights the importance of making health insurance available and affordable. In short, universal health insurance, in my view, would play a significant role in helping to combat the feeling of isolation and helplessness that many feel in the current situation.

And here’s where Predictive Health information comes into the picture. Predictive Health Research (PHR) promises to provide new ways to identify individuals’ specific level of health risk and provide new, more targeted medical care. A healthcare system that provided excellent preventive care, guided by breakthroughs in PHR, could greatly reduce mortality and morbidity. We could improve the sense of safety and trust that supports a healthy spiritual life. But here’s where the fly lands in the ointment. At our biweekly meeting of the PredictER program this week at the IU Center for Bioethics, Eleanor Kinney JD, MPH, and Jennifer Girod JD, PhD, RN, presented a talk about the ways that Predictive Health information threatens to undermine the current system of health insurance. In short, identifying people’s risk levels creates perverse incentives for patients and for insurance companies. Individuals with lower risk have less reason to join the insurance “pool,” since their premiums disproportionately support care for others, rather than themselves. At the same time, insurance companies have the incentive of excluding those at higher risk, or at least charging them higher premiums. As Kinney and Girod pointed out, there are various schemes for blocking this destructive dynamic, although things get difficult pretty fast.

But sitting there listening to them, I realized that once again we were talking about the challenge of how to bind us together as a society and take care of everybody – the high risk and the low risk alike. How tragic if the same scientific breakthroughs that could allow for improved preventive care for all were to result in worse care and isolation for those at the highest risk. That would truly be a situation where isolation, not trust and community, would have its day.

Peter Schwartz, MD, PhD